Book Review: WHAT’S A NICE ACTOR LIKE YOU DOING IN A MOVIE LIKE THIS?

     February 27, 2011

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As a movie nerd, I’m attracted to cinematic train wrecks.  I love learning about how movies went drastically wrong and the cinematic schlock that once stuffed video store walls and now fills up video streaming services.  Obviously, I want to see all the great films, but there’s also something to be said about movies where everything went horribly wrong.  Furthermore, it’s not enough to know the “popular” terrible movies.  True cinephiles know how to dig deeper into filmographies and find the real travesties.

Author Dan Whitehead is a true cinephile and has used his encyclopedic knowledge of movies to compile an engaging overview of A-list actors slumming in Z-movie hell.  And if you’re thinking, “Yeah, we all know George Clooney was in Return of the Killer Tomatoes,” Whitehead fires back with “Yeah, but have you seen him in Return to Horror High?”  Whitehead’s book What’s a Nice Actor Like You Doing in a Movie Like This? not only examines the films that celebrities wish you’d rather not see, but does so with humor and insight.

the-manitou-poster-01What’s a Nice Actor Like You is structured like an encyclopedia and goes through actors A-Z to examine their cinematic misdeeds.  The common thread you’ll find through almost all of the movies is that they’re not blockbusters.  Whitehead understands that if most people have already seen a bad movie, then there’s not much point in bringing it to light.  Also, the films highlighted in What’s a Nice Actor tend to fall in the particular spectrum of an actor’s career.  The film usually comes before the actor has had their big break (Clooney in Horror High, Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun) or it’s a legendary actor whose career was in decline (Tony Curtis in The Manitou, Orson Welles in The Witching).

However, the book really isn’t about the actors as much as it’s about their terrible movies.  Even if an actor only has a bit part, Whitehead will take the reader through the awfulness of the entire picture.  More often than not (and despite his best intentions), Whitehead succeeds in making the reader want to see the cinematic abomination rather than avoid it.  Yes, stars are the hook, but what Whitehead really wants to talk about are the movies, no matter how terrible they may be.

I’ve known Dan Whitehead for almost a decade now.  We first met on the CHUD message boards and I was impressed at not only his extensive knowledge of film, but his talent as a writer.  He’s incredibly clever and like all great critics, he’s able to distill a movie’s problems down into quick-witted, insightful barbs.  For example, when he comments on Sandra Bullock’s Bionic Showdown, he picks up on the fact that the love interest was only faking being crippled “because she can’t possibly date a man who’s actually confined to a wheelchair.  Eurgh.  Gross.” What you’re going to get out of What’s a Nice Actor Like You is not only an informative read, but an entertaining one.

I will say that I think the book would have worked better had it been slimmed down to a more manageable size.  The encyclopedic structure only makes sense in organizing the volume of names, and some actors don’t feel worthy of inclusion (Lisa Kudrow, Miranda Otto, and Matt LeBlanc to name a few).  As I was reading What’s a Nice Actor, I was constantly flashing back to Nathan Rabin’s similar book, My Year of Flops.  However, while What’s a Nice Actor is a bit of a beast at almost 500 pages, My Year of Flops is a nice “airplane book”: a fun little time-killer that’s informative but easy to cart around (It’s worth noting that there is a Kindle edition of What’s a Nice Actor).

What’s a Nice Actor is a book that feels ill-served by its editors.  There’s a lack of clarity in its “guidance”, as when you’ll see a particular actor referenced for a certain film, but when you read the entry on that actor, you’ll see it’s for a different movie.  There are also typos, misspellings, and other errors about every twenty pages or so and it’s a disservice to Whitehead’s writing that they weren’t caught.  There are also images from the movies in question, but the images are in such low-resolution (and the source obviously wasn’t great to begin with), that their inclusion doesn’t really add anything to the material.   Finally, for a book that’s referencing not only actors but their various movies, it’s difficult to understand why there wouldn’t be an index.

My problem with What’s a Nice Actor Like You Doing in a Movie Like This? has to do with its structure, not its content.  The writing is informative and hilarious and it makes me wish that Whitehead would set up a regular online column that explores more terrible movies.  There are countless lists that tell the movie-going public what are the “best” movies, but books like this help tell us the worst.  The book may not fit easily into your carry-on, but it deserves a place on your shelf.

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